Hudson Mohawke: Mainstream Infiltration

Ian Maleney
Posted September 4, 2012 in Music Features

NCH – 25 sep-3 oct-22 Desktop

Ross Birchard seems a quiet enough kind of guy. He speaks slowly and in a thick Glasgow accent. It’s mid-afternoon and he’s just landed in London after flying back from Amsterdam’s Applesap festival where, for once, he was not playing. Being just a face in the crowd at international festivals is not something the 26-year old often has the chance to do these days, his summers long since taken up by a steady stream of festival dates and club shows around Europe and further afield.

Still, headlining massive festivals is a long way from his roots in the nascent Glasgow hip-hop scene of the early millennium. At the tender age of 15, under the name DJ Itchy (yes, a Simpsons reference), he became the youngest ever UK DMC finalist, the cream of the crop as far as turntablism goes. It had been a passion for him for several years at that point and he says starting young was key.

“I think it’s quite good to do it at a young age because maybe you’re less versed in the way of the world or whatever, you find it a lot easier to get completely immersed in something,” he says. “You don’t have responsibilities and you don’t have bills to pay and this and that. So I was able to practice for like 15 hours a day you know? I could just do that endlessly. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was like 12 years old, 13 years old. It was a good time to learn to something because you can give it your entire attention, your brain can kind of soak it up.”

While the turntables provided a performance outlet, Birchard had also begun to produce at home, beginning with the somewhat unusual help of a Playstation game.

“I started using that because I didn’t have a PC or any other way of making music really,” he said. “I used to buy DJ Magazine and this kind of thing and I spotted in one of the issues that there was this Playstation game coming out which was loosely based on proper music making software. I kind of thought, ‘I’ll give this a go’ and I ended up getting really addicted to it and it just went from there.”

This all happened long before the rise of laptops and freely downloadable software, something which has lowered the barriers for people wishing to get a start in music production. This development has positive and negative sides for Birchard, who has long since left the Playstation behind.

“It’s obviously amazing that it gives literally anyone the ability to make music and experiment, regardless of previous experience,” he says. “Just get some software and mess around. So it’s good in that sense but it’s taken away or demystified things a little bit and also it’s made for a complete influx of people releasing music who have only been making music for like two months or something. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing but there’s no level of having to work on your craft and save your money to buy equipment and sort of cut your teeth in it.”

The low cost of entry also means that kids, genuine children, are getting involved. Just look at Joey Bada$$ or Kitty Pride or our own Mmoths.

“Yeah, it’s weird, everyone is just getting younger and younger!” he says. “I suppose there have always been really young people. I guess it’s weird for me because I still think of myself as the young generation, making my way, you know what I mean? I’m 26 and there’s people coming up who are like ten years younger than me.”

Ten years ago though, he was one of those kids on the make and his descriptions of Glasgow at that time and through to the present day highlight the supportive scene there. He singles out the Numbers crew, the sadly-defunct Optimo night, the newly minted Vitamins club and of course, the LuckyMe collective as particularly inspiring institutions.

The “small town” feel of the city might get a bit much at times but the diversity and isolation from the bigger cities are important factors of the Glaswegian make-up.

“Because it’s a smaller city and all, people are more inclined to go see other club-nights or other types of music,” says Birchard. “Whereas, in London, because there’s so much going on, people tend to stick to their kind of scene and what’s going on within their world. If there’s some kind of deep house DJ playing in Glasgow and then there’s a big MC rap act that comes and plays or there’s this type of DJ or that person, people will go see all of it. Without having to go and hunt down what’s going on, you have it easier to go check out a variety of stuff. I think it’s the same in Dublin too, from my experience of Dublin.”

Perhaps it’s this diversity that has seen the Glasgow scene which HudMo’s music often represents become associated with a list of genres as long as your arm. Wonky, purple, glitch-hop, aqua-crunk, take your pick. Birchard has no time for any of this; it’s just hip-hop to him.

“It seems to just be a necessity that magazines or blogs or whatever like to come up with a new little buzz name for some genre or whatever,” he says. “I suppose in a way it does help to hype people up because they feel like they’re part of this new little sub-genre but as far as I see it, it’s the same music as I’ve always been making. I think maybe the stuff that I’m releasing now, the TNGHT stuff, it’s stuff that I’ve always made but it’s stuff that I might not necessarily have released because it didn’t always fit in with the context of how I felt one of my own records or one of my own albums should sound.”

TNGHT sees Birchard hooking up with crazy Canadian beat-maker Lunice for a hard-edged take on club-ready hip-hop. The project also aims to highlight how mainstream producers have been pilfering ideas and sounds from underground artists and turning them to their own use. TNGHT is an attempt in some ways to beat them at their own game.

“I think maybe it’s a controversial thing to say but it is true to be honest,” says Birchard. “We’re now in a position where we know, 100%, that the people who are making the big number one hit records are fully in the knowledge of our stuff. And not just us but the musical circle of people that we’re involved in. So we’re like, now that we know this 100%, we thought we might as well just be going for it ourselves.”

While they have an eye on commercial sounds and large crowds, compromise is not an option. After all, why steal back someone’s else watered down version of what you were already doing? Birchard knows that it’s their sounds, their talent, that got them noticed in the first place so they’ll be keeping their personalities front and centre throughout.

“If you go into it with the mindset of ‘I really want to get into this and I’m going to really play the game of it’, you can get into a position where you have people telling you what to do,” he says. “You end up compromising yourself and what you like for the big players. Even though we’ve only got our foot in the door, we’ve managed to get into it while maintaining our own identity, without a certain amount of compromise. We’re not going to be changing this to sound like Katy Perry or whatever, it’s just what we do and if people are interested in that, then we’re up for being involved. If you have that attitude, people kind of have to take it or leave it and it seems like there is interest there so I’m glad we’re not like, bending over, as it were.”

With lots of festivals booked over the summer, including a stop off at Stradbally’s Electric Picnic, Birchard has to attend to the minor business of making several thousand people go wild at once, a couple of times a week. The pressure of performance on that level doesn’t seem to bother him though, confident as he is in the music and its ability to reach people. And, thankfully for him, not every show is a festival.

“I’ll do a load of festivals and then the next one will be a small club show with three or four hundred people,” he says. “I mean, big shows are fun, but with the small shows you’ve got a more direct contact with the crowd, you can build up a better rapport rather than focus on having everyone in the front going mental which is mainly what festivals seem to be about.”

In the end, it just comes down to the music and the feeling in the room/tent/arena. “Most people just want to hear and see somebody they know playing their music and beyond that, it’s not really important. It’s more really about the experience of it for someone in the audience rather than technically what’s going on. That’s coming from someone who spent years endlessly pursuing technical perfection, to the point where I’m like ‘Fuck this, it’s not about that’. It’s about the atmosphere and the people there, not what the exact technical procedure that’s happening is. I don’t think you have to be doing this crazy, technical, outrageous set to be able to move people. It’s still so much fun to play on the big stages though, it’s much more immediate. To hear a big roar, it’s a thrill in itself, you know?”

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